I read Jodi Kantor's new book, The Obamas. First lady Michelle Obama is described as a strong-willed, highly intelligent spouse who works behind the scenes to protect the president's agenda. It shows a loving mother trying to ensure that her two daughters remain as normal as possible while living in Washington's harsh spotlight.
I put down the book with higher regard for Michelle Obama and a better understanding of the family's struggles as the first African-Americans to occupy the White House.
Predictably, right-wing talk show hosts immediately started using the book as an excuse to return to a poisonous theme: Michelle Obama is "an angry black woman."
"I see Michelle Obama's mad while saying she's not," Rush Limbaugh said.
Radio host and tea party activist David Webb, who is black, told The Hill that "Michelle Obama comes from a very angry, black nationalist background."
He further suggested that the first lady, who rose from modest means with the benefit of America's "enormous opportunities," should mind her words, that in her role as first lady, "it's un-American" for Michelle Obama to bring up racial issues at all.
"The majority of Americans do not like that approach, this underhand way of doing things," Webb said.
The shocking surprise is that instead of holding her tongue, as she has done until now, the first lady is striking back. During a recent interview with Gayle King of CBS News about Kantor's book, Michelle Obama attacked the right wing's portrayal of her: "That's been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I'm some kind of angry black woman. … There will always be people who don't like me."
Most conservatives, such as Limbaugh and Webb, are outraged that the first lady has the gall to stand up for herself and confront race so forthrightly, to use the words "angry black woman." Many Democrats are afraid the first lady's new approach will give Republicans yet another blunt weapon to use as the presidential campaign heats up.
Here is my take. The first lady and the president have been models of civility and restraint in dealing with matters of race. They are loath to play the so-called race card. In fact, the Obamas always have been forced into racial confrontations.
This reticence, although admirable in some ways, distresses many blacks who want the Obamas to be more open and forceful. They believe the Obamas helped to create the early pipe dream that the United States finally will enter a postracial era. The reality, of course, is that race never went anywhere.
If the first lady is an angry black woman, she has every right to be. Conservative white and black Americans are hypocrites if they say otherwise.
They need to remember that Michelle Obama was born on Chicago's South Side in 1964, the year the Rev. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize. King won the prize as a fighter for civil and human rights, not in the Soviet Union, not in China or Iran, but in the United States — the land of the free, the world's model of democracy and justice. During that same year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations. The first lady grew up knowing this history, coming of age in a world that had not fully shed the racial injustice and brutality King had battled.
And change was slow to come as Michelle Obama matured. She and her brother knew that their father, a carpenter, was denied union membership and shut out of lucrative construction jobs because he was black. Although intellectually gifted in high school, Michelle Obama listened to an adviser discourage her from applying to Princeton University. She graduated from Princeton with honors. When she applied to Harvard Law School, race became an issue again when counselors told her she would never make it at the premier school. She excelled at Harvard.
We all are aware of the right wing's relentless and not-so-subtle effort to discredit the first African-American first lady. National Review magazine described her as "Mrs. Grievance." Her young daughters, Malia and Sasha, have been ridiculed as being unintelligent. The family has been caricatured as monkeys. The first lady has been referred to as "Obama's baby mama," and her husband has been called the "food stamp president," suggestive of race.
Michelle Obama feels the hurt of race, not to mention gender, every day. It is an unavoidable part of her life. If she is an angry black woman, she earned it the hard way right here in the United States of America.